Flight Time/Duty Time for Air Cargo

By Capt. David J. Wells (FedEx) , member, ALPA Flight Time/Duty Time Committee, and Jay Wells, ALPA Attorney
Air Line Pilot, September 2004, p.18

ALPA is encouraging the FAA and the U.S. air cargo industry to move quickly to require all U.S.-certificated cargo airlines to comply with the principles of the FAA’s One Level of Safety program, especially with regard to modernization and harmonization of the flight-time/duty-time regulations.

The present flight-time/duty-time rules that apply to cargo flying are a patchwork of domestic, supplemental, and flag regulations that have been developed over the past 50 years. The rules usually applied to cargo operations—the supplemental rules—were developed more than 50 years ago for unscheduled freight operations using piston-powered aircraft, most of which had unpressurized cabins, cruise speeds in the 200-knot range, and flight crews of at least two pilots and often a flight engineer. Carriers are now using modern technology to decrease cockpit crew size and increase pilot and aircraft utilization.

Because the FAA’s duty-time rules are antiquated, unions frequently get the rules augmented through collective bargaining agreements. However, such agreements affect only a part of the industry and may not result in uniform treatment of the same issues at all carriers. This puts pressure on operators to reduce crew rest because they believe that this results in "productivity" increases that are necessary for economic survival. Pressures are especially acute in economic downtimes.

The FAA last proposed to modernize the flight-time/duty-time regulations in 1995; but industry, labor, and the regulators were unable to reach a consensus. Nearly a decade later, the need for industrywide reform in flight-time/duty-time rules is still apparent—but the need in the air cargo industry is particularly acute.

The NTSB’s 2004 Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements include "Set working hour limits for flight crews." U.S. domestic pilots have a flight-time maximum of 30 hours in 7 days, while flag pilots are allowed up to 32 hours in 7 days. Supplemental pilots can fly 48 hours in a 6-day period, or 60 percent more than domestic pilots.

ALPA believes the need to provide rational working hour limits for cargo pilots is pressing, as is the need to unify passenger, cargo, and domestic and international flight-time/duty-time regulations to provide for a single standard, or One Level of Safety.

Certain basic rules should be established to provide a baseline for all operations, and certain unique aspects of cargo operations must ultimately be addressed by rules tailored to those operations.

Authoritative and peer-reviewed scientific studies, consensus, and evidence directly support the establishment of regulations for supplemental air cargo carriers that share a common baseline with the rules that now apply to domestic passenger carriers. Government and NTSB safety recommendations support this concept.

While ALPA is by no means suggesting that the rules applicable to passenger carriers are adequate, harmonization of the two sets so as to establish a minimum common baseline is clearly a step forward toward compliance with the NTSB’s mandate and in accordance with the One Level of Safety principle.

Currently, air cargo operations are subject to safety standards that differ from those of passenger operations in a variety of areas. Under the current system, these aircraft are operating without collision avoidance systems (they will not be required until December 2005), without the benefit of licensed dispatchers, and with more relaxed rules for pilot rest requirements. The fact that large aircraft sharing the same airspace can have vastly different requirements in these areas departs from FAA’s doctrine of One Level of Safety. As air carrier operations have grown dramatically and as air cargo operators trend toward operating the same aircraft in the same airspace as their passenger-carrying counterparts, the need for consistent air safety regulation becomes more acute.

Problems unique to cargo operations

Some of the specific areas that are unique or predominant in the air cargo industry follow:

• The air cargo industry of today must operate 24 hours per day to meet operational demands. Growth in global long-haul operations and in regional, overnight cargo, and short-haul domestic operations has increased round-the-clock requirements. Flight crews need to be available to support 24-hour-a-day operations to meet these industry demands. Both domestic and international aviation frequently require crossing multiple time zones. When the supplemental regulations were generated nearly 50 years ago, air cargo flight crews were not expected to (and did not) conduct round-the-clock all-weather operations with minimal flight crews in busy airspace. Cargo airline flight crews of today face a combination of operational and environmental factors, beyond mere cockpit performance, or flying, that increase wear and tear on the flight crews and hence the tendency for fatigue to become a flight hazard.

• The combination of nonscheduled and irregular operations result in the problem of fatigue being particularly acute in the air cargo industry. Cargo airlines typically operate as FAR Part 121 supplemental carriers, the FARs for which are less restrictive than those for domestic or flag carriers, including not requiring flight dispatchers.

For irregular operations, the ground support network typically associated with passenger operations may not be available, and therefore, flight crews often must spend time and energy on noncockpit duties. Many cargo airlines also outsource the cargo-preparation and aircraft-loading activities to private organizations not affiliated with the airline. Frequently, these airlines use different cargo-preparation and aircraft-loading contractors at the different airports the airlines serve, calling them outstations. This can require flight crews to have to spend time and energy outside the cockpit on logistical details that station personnel in passenger operations normally handle. Some carriers have historically had flight engineers supervise loading operations; however, the engineer’s position is being eliminated in the air cargo industry as the airlines replace older airplanes with new airplanes having two-pilot cockpits. The airlines and the FAA often exercise minimal or no oversight of these cargo-preparation and aircraft-loading contractors at outstations. Flight crews must devote extra attention to preflight aircraft loading and preparation to ensure safety and regulatory compliance.

• The age of the fleet is another factor in air cargo operations, as typically, the aircraft in most cargo fleets are older than those in service with U.S. passenger airlines and, therefore, may be less capable in terms of performance, reliability, and automation. Older aircraft and their subsystems (e.g., avionics, engines, etc.) require more maintenance and greater attention to malfunctions and "raw data" on the part of flight crews.

• A significant proportion of cargo flights occur at night. Most human beings are less alert and aware during backside-of-the-clock periods (midnight to 6:00 a.m.) and are, therefore, more susceptible to making errors, to failing to notice errors, and to failing to quickly and accurately rectify errors. NASA research shows that the effect of overnight operations imposes a number of physiological challenges not present during the day, resulting in lower performance. NASA research also supports the belief held by flight crews that the quality of sleep during the day is inferior to that obtained at night. Darkness-related factors such as restricted visibility, loss of depth perception, and decreased visual contrast also further reduce the margins of safety.

• Overnight cargo crews reported headaches more than twice as often as did short-haul fixed-wing crews, and overnight cargo crews’ headaches were approaching the numbers of headaches reported by helicopter crew members who flew in cockpits where overheating, poor ventilation, and high levels of vibration were common. Overnight cargo crews more frequently reported having a congested nose than short-haul fixed-wing crews and reported an incidence of burning eyes that was comparable to that of helicopter crews. Overnight cargo crews also reported a more negative effect of trips on appetite than did daytime short-haul fixed-wing crews. This may have been related, at least in part, to duty hours that coincided with that part of the circadian cycle (late evening through early morning) that is not normally associated with eating.

• The route structures and destination airports of cargo airlines frequently differ from those of passenger airlines. While cargo airlines do maintain hub airports, they frequently change the destination cities as a function of market forces. Cargo flight crews’ exposure to a wide and changing variety of destinations decreases the safety margins afforded by route familiarization and/or the familiarity of repeated operations into the same airports.

• Many airports that cargo airlines serve offer less supporting infrastructure than those that passenger airlines serve. Infrastructure can include such flight-related items as precision instrument approaches, runway lighting configurations, and aircraft ground support, plus such flight crew physiological items as comfortable crew briefing rooms, availability of dining facilities, and ease of access to crew hotels. At some airports, control towers are closed during late-night or early-morning cargo operations. Depending on their availability or lack thereof, all these factors can either increase crew workload directly, or decrease a crew’s ability to obtain adequate rest, and thus affect the margins of safety of the operation.

• Nonpublished operational schedules and the night operations associated with cargo operations provide less opportunity for FAA inspectors to maintain oversight of cargo operations. Government supervision of these operations, including compliance with flight-time/duty-time limits, historically has been inadequate.

Fatigue and accidents

Despite remarkable progress in aviation safety in other areas, fatigue remains a lurking danger. While the NTSB made an exhaustive study of fatigue in the 1993 Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, crash, and a point of it in its investigation of the 1995 American International accident in Kansas City, fatigue has been a factor in Part 121 passenger accidents, also. Pilot fatigue was found to be a factor in 1999 in the Little Rock, Ark., accident and again in 2001 in Zurich, Switzerland. Fatigue was also a factor in Emery’s DC-8 accident near Sacramento, Calif., in 2000.

The FAA recently reported that 21 percent of the reports to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System were related to general issues of fatigue. This includes reports that mentioned fatigue directly or indirectly. When only reports that directly mention fatigue are included, the percentage drops to 3.8 percent. Other research tells us that pilots who perform poorly on laboratory tests at the end of a duty period believed themselves to be fully alert.

The Safety Board issued three recommendations to the Department of Transportation in 1989 after completing its investigation of several accidents involving operator fatigue:

• Expedite a coordinated research program on the effects of fatigue, sleepiness, sleep disorders, and circadian factors on transportation system safety.

• Develop and disseminate educational material for transportation industry personnel and management regarding shift work; work and rest schedules; and proper regimes of health, diet, and rest.

• Review and upgrade regulations governing hours of service for all transportation modes to ensure that they are consistent and that they incorporate the results of the latest research on fatigue and sleep issues.

Since 1989, the Safety Board has issued more than 70 fatigue-related safety recommendations, which were the result of major accident investigations, special investigations, or safety studies that identified operator fatigue as a factor. This includes 11 accident reports or studies of aviation operations conducted under Parts 91, 121, and 135.

Operator fatigue has been on the Safety Board’s list of Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements since the list’s inception in 1990. Other, more specific, recommendations related to fatigue have followed.

In a May 1999 report, the NTSB concluded, "None of the hours-of-service regulations or statutes have been modified since the Board first issued its intermodal recommendations in 1989. Fatigue in the transportation environment continues to be a factor in the cause of accidents. It has always been expected that this issue would require a long period of time to bring about the needed changes."

The scientific research required to support these changes is now available.

FAA actions

The FAA indicated that it had planned to issue in spring 2001 a supplemental NPRM that would take into consideration the technical and operational concerns that were raised during the NPRM comment period. The SNPRM would prescribe a maximum duty period linked to a maximum flight-time restriction that is associated with a minimum rest period based on the number of pilots. The FAA has not issued an SNPRM, however.

FAA staff advised Safety Board staff that, as of the end of January 2003, the Office of the Secretary of Transportation was reviewing the SNPRM before it would be submitted to the Office of Management and Budget and then published in the Federal Register.

In the nearly 10 years since the proposed revised regulations were promulgated, the scientific research has only continued to validate several basic concepts that underlay the then-proposed rules:

• Some form of daily duty limit (versus a pure flight-time limit) is justified.

• Standby (or reserve) duty should be counted toward the daily duty limit.

• Some provision should be included in the regulations to compensate irregular and late-night operations for both domestic and overseas operations.

Harmonization is needed now

The United States has the most developed airfreight market in the world. Creating an exponential growth in demand for airfreight and express delivery are the rising popularity of electronic commerce; mail-order retailing; and faster, freer, and more frequent international trade. A former NTSB chairman, in a September 2000 address, cited U.S. Department of Transportation figures indicating that cargo-only flights make up almost 10 percent of domestic air carrier operations. The U.S. aircraft fleet dedicated to cargo flights is growing as well. More than 1,500 large aircraft are in service now, with that number expected to grow by 50 percent or more over the next 10 years. In addition, cargo feeders using smaller aircraft, such as the Cessna Caravan, are expanding into more and more market areas.

In 1999, 60 percent of the world’s cargo tonnage moved within the United States. One analytical consulting firm estimated that world airfreight tonnage increased by 38 percent in just 5 years—from 16.6 million tons in 1994 to 23 million tons in 1999. As economic globalization increases, and international commerce expands, we can expect airfreight traffic to grow as well. Cargo operators such as FedEx, United Parcel Service, and DHL are among the largest airlines in the world, and new cargo carriers continue to appear.

This greater demand, while economically beneficial, presents increasing safety challenges that must be met on a daily basis. The first of these challenges is how we effectively deal with fatigue.

Over the past 40 years, scientific knowledge about sleep, sleep disorders, circadian physiology, fatigue, sleepiness/alertness, and performance decrements has grown significantly. Some of this scientific knowledge, gained through field and simulator studies, confirms that aviators experience performance-impairing fatigue from sleep loss resulting from current flight and duty practices.

The FAA rules require passenger airlines to provide reserve pilots with a pre-scheduled and protected 8-hour rest period sometime during the 24-hour period before completing a flight assignment. Because these regulations weren’t enforced, airlines could require their reserve pilots to be "on call" 24 hours per day for several consecutive days without giving them the legally mandated crew rest. In 1999, the FAA fixed this problem with a simple change in policy. It can do the same for thousands of cargo pilots.

The time has come to provide sane and rational flight-time limits for cargo pilots, to provide One Level of Safety.

The Association’s Flight Time/Duty Time Committee has established two reasonable principles to guide the definition of flight-time limits for flight crews:

The first is that the duty schedule should not prevent the flight crew from ensuring that they are fully rested at the start of each duty period. Particular problems can arise when duty periods encroach on the normal sleep time, or when the normal sleep pattern is disturbed by time zone transitions. In these circumstances, providing adequate time for rest is essential.

The second principle is that the duration and timing of individual duty periods must enable the flight crew to maintain acceptable alertness at all times.

ALPA recommendations

Improving the safety of all-cargo airlines and of passenger airlines’ cargo operations has been a long-term goal of ALPA members. When we began our campaign for One Level of Safety in 1995, we tried to include both cargo and supplemental airline operations within the FAA’s purview. The agency’s focus then was solely on small FAR Part 135 airlines that, indeed, required much improvement in their safety cultures.

The Association recommends that the FAA accomplish the following:

• Set a weekly maximum flight-time limit for domestic cargo operations that is consistent with the rules for pilots of domestic passenger carriers.

• Require that cargo pilots receive a mandatory preflight rest in a manner that is consistent with the rules for pilots of domestic passenger carriers.

• Require that, when cargo pilots spend time on standby duty and are responsible for work if work arises (reserve duty), the time be counted toward a daily duty period of a maximum of 16 hours (or less).

• Decrease the number of hours of daily flight time and duty time that may be required of pilots if the pilot operates during the time period from midnight to dawn. This recommendation, while potentially applicable to all air carrier pilots, is especially pertinent to cargo pilots because of the large percentage of their operations that they fly at night.

• Decrease the number of hours of daily flight time and duty time that may be required of a pilot if the pilot operates across six or more time zones. This recommendation, while potentially applicable to all air carrier pilots, is especially pertinent to cargo pilots because of the predominance of international deadheading to "meet the airplane" in the international cargo industry.

The need for a harmonized policy that results in a weekly maximum flight-hour limits for supplemental cargo pilots, with minimum required preflight and reserve rest, is particularly acute. Harmonization of the rules in these two areas would be a good start to providing the air cargo industry with the One Level of Safety that the NTSB recommends, the public expects, and pilots demand.

Capt. David J. Wells is central air safety chairman for the FedEx pilots, a member of ALPA’s Flight Time/Duty Time Committee, and a member of ALPA’s Cargo Safety Project Team, which chose him to present ALPA’s positions on cargo FT/DT issues before the NTSB Forum on Cargo Safety in March. Jay Wells is an attorney in ALPA’s Legal Department.